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Simple Photography Tips | Amateurs Should Only Shoot In Manual Mode

By Max Bridge on July 6th 2016

Learning photography is not easy. Camera’s these days are complex and the subject of photography itself is an expansive one with many nuances to contend with. As you use your camera more, and study the subject of photography, analyze the work of others etc., the whole process becomes second nature, and, generally speaking, there is no set path to learning. That said, there are some things I think all amateurs should do, and this is one of them.

The inspiration for this article came from a friend who is currently getting his feet wet in our field. He recently went on a short course for beginners in which the instructor, a seasoned photographer, told them to shoot in automatic and semi-automatic modes while learning. Despite understanding the logic, I could not disagree more.

Yes, within the comfy confines of Auto for those first few months they will have less photos where the exposure has been missed. But, by shooting in automatic modes, you’re allowing the camera to do all / some of the thinking. In other words, you are not learning very much. It’s like doing a test and being given the answer key, or riding a bike with stabilizers and not taking them off. There is nothing wrong with using automatic and semi-automatic modes on your camera, but ONLY once you know exactly what your camera is doing to achieve the desired exposure.

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Simple Photography Tips | The Exposure Triangle

The exposure triangle is a relatively simple concept which explains the three core settings used to acquire “correct” exposure. It’s a visual representation of the balancing act that we go through. As one of those settings is adjusted then one or two of the others must also be. Attaining accurate exposure is a balancing act between all three.

I’ve often found the exposure triangle to be quite confusing for new photographers. Why? It encourages people to think along these lines, “what settings do I need for correct exposure?”. They get bogged down there and focus on numbers. That leads people to ask questions like “what camera settings did you use?” as if there are some magic numbers that produce nice images all ’round -there aren’t by the way, sorry.

[REWIND: WHY ‘WHAT CAMERA SETTINGS SHOULD I USE?’ IS A POINTLESS QUESTION]

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Simple Photography Tips | My Advice To All Beginners

Firstly, shoot in Manual mode only. Once you are comfortable there, you can move on to other modes should you wish. You can’t learn while keeping the stabilizers on. Secondly, change the way you approach camera settings. Rather than thinking about what numbers you need to achieve the “correct” exposure, start thinking about what you want from your photo. Often, once you know what you want to achieve, the settings almost take care of themselves – or at least your’e not shooting by numbers. Start with your primary concern. For example:

“I need to freeze motion”

From there, you adjust the setting which controls that effect / need; aperture for depth of field, shutter speed for motion and ISO for shooting in dark environments (broad generalization here). After that, it becomes a little more blurry; this is where experience comes in. Your next considerations could be something like:

“I need to freeze motion AND I want a shallow depth of field”

So now you know, you need a fast shutter speed AND want a wide aperture (low number). You then use those settings as the basis for your final setting. It plays off the other two.

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Summary

Shoot in Manual mode only, once you’re comfortable with the exposure triangle and the effect that each setting has, you are permitted to move on.

When making your decisions, consider either the effect you want to achieve (shallow depth of field) or the need you have (to freeze motion). Learn what settings you need to accomplish the look and work from there, i.e. f4 and below for a shallow depth of field. Adjust your settings one after the other, starting with the one which controls your primary effect/need. Then, attack the secondary effect/need and finally bring the third one in to achieve correct exposure.

For more simple photography tips, check out the other articles in this series:

[REWIND: WHAT TRIPOD HEAD IS RIGHT FOR ME?]

[REWIND: 8 THINGS TO DO WITH A NEW CAMERA]

[REWIND: 5 TIPS TO FRAME THE PERFECT PHOTO]

[REWIND: UNCOMMON AND ESSENTIAL CAMERA SETTINGS]

[REWIND: YOU’RE A BAD PHOTOGRAPHER IF YOU DON’T KNOW…]

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About

Max began his career within the film industry. He’s worked on everything from a banned horror film to multi-million-pound commercials crewed by top industry professionals. After suffering a back injury, Max left the film industry and is now using his knowledge to pursue a career within photography.

Website: SquareMountain 
Instagram: Follow Author

Q&A Discussions

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  1. Simon Johannssen

    Great article! Proud to say I am shooting in manual mode since day one :)

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  2. Kelvin Strepen

    After reading this, I think, still I’m a beginner in photography.

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  3. Ralph Hightower

    I bought my first SLR in 1980, a Canon A-1, which I still shoot with today. Back then, I read books by Ansel Adams, John Hedgecoe, and others since there was no Internet back then. I gained an understanding of the exposure triangle from those books, and also the Zone System.

    I consider the A-1 revolutionary in the late 70’s/early 80’s since it had shutter priority, aperture priority, and also program mode, besides manual and stopped down. Other cameras during that period offered shutter priority or aperture priority, but not both. Back then, I used either shutter priority or aperture priority, but mostly program mode. I do have a lens that requires stopped down metering.

    It sounds counterintuitive, but at a nighttime baseball game, I use aperture priority. I was as high as I could go with Kodak TMAX 3200 film. My 80-205mm zoom is 4.5 to 32. I set the aperture priority to 4.5 and let the shutter speeds fall where they may.

    When I took photos for a panorama, it made sense to me to put the A-1 in manual mode since I didn’t want the aperture or shutter speed to change between photos for the merge. The A-1 displays a suggested exposure on the LED and that needs to be transferred to the controls.

    I bought a used Canon New F-1 with the AE Finder FN for aperture priority and the AE Motor Drive FN (currently not mounted) for shutter priority. For casual photography, I’ll use the match needle system.

    I haven’t tried manual exposure on my 5D Mk III. I should try that. I don’t know what the display will show or how to set the aperture and shutter.

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  4. Griffin Conway

    Great article Max! Just curious on your thoughts for post production for beginners. Do you feel beginners should try and learn to edit on their own before using lightroom presets?

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  5. Frank Gullotti

    Well Said and I couldn’t agree more !! Understanding WHAT you want to achieve in a photo MUST start with understanding HOW to do it … Understanding how to do that in manual mode is the best way to get there (IMHO)

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  6. Paul Nguyen

    I’m never a fan of manual mode unless I’m shooting in studio with strobe lighting.

    In real life shooting, I always prefer Aperture priority with a set minimum shutter speed. Set the minimum shutter speed according to your subject/lens and then use the aperture for DOF control, the ISO will be adjusted in camera accordingly. Use exposure compensation to make it lighter/darker.

    I feel sorry for the poor souls who never learn to use Aperture priority with minimum shutter speed. I once had a friend who always shot manual mode. He was pretty confident about “guessing exposure”, so I let him do it – his frame was awfully overexposed whilst my camera got it first go.

    If you’re shooting sports or action, forget about manual model. Do you think you have enough time to take test frames and adjust every time a player moves from the shade into the sun? Obviously not.

    Ultimately, manual mode has its place, where you control every element of the lighting and want to keep consistent exposure across the frame. When you’re shooting in the real world, reacting to changing conditions and having to gauge exposure, your camera does it much better than you. If you think you’re better than a matrix meter which is a central part of your camera, think again, those things are dead accurate.

    At the end of the day, I do use manual mode, but as I said, only in studio or when I’m doing something special like a long exposure. Shooting in manual does help you learn, but it is often at the expense of worrying about more important things. Exposure settings are one of those things that you will learn as the time requires, when you need to shoot something, you will learn how to adjust your exposure settings to get there. Focus on the important things – composition, framing, storytelling. Wasting time in manual mode hampers all these things.

    You’re right, all photographers have to learn manual some day, just like every car driver should learn to drive stick shift at some point, but just because it’s something that’s good to know doesn’t mean it’s the best place to start. There are more important things than transmission when driving (e.g. steering, handling, throttle control…etc.), it’s the same with photography. I wouldn’t teach someone to drive stick shift first, I’d teach them automatic, get everything down pat, then move to stick, same with photography.

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    • Ralph Hightower

      I learned driving with my parents’ cars and they had automatics. But my first car, eh, pickup, was a manual transmission. All my cars before I got married were manual. I tried to teach my wife how to drive a stick shift; she knew how to drive her dad’s tractor. But I gave up and sold the Mustang.

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    • Matthew Saville

      I respectfully disagree, at least with regard to the stick-shift car analogy. Not because I think that learning to drive on an automatic is a bad thing, but because I think learning to shoot pictures on Aperture priority is a bad thing.

      Manual exposure is just so simple, much more simple than learning how to finesse a clutch. It’s just three camera settings that you have to adjust to get the desired result. You can learn it in a day, and decently master it in a week or a month.

      Oppositely, I believe that a photographer who starts off by relying on auto-exposure is going to take much longer to fully understand the exposure triangle, or metering itself, let alone how metering and exposure work together to perform the automatic calculations that go into shooting in various modes.

      So, all I’m suggesting is that beginners spend at least a day shooting manual, understanding which direction to dial each setting to make an image brighter or darker, and how each setting affects the end result, whether it be depth, blur, noise, whatever. Then, after this brief and easy learning experience, you can decide whether or not your particular subjects lend themselves to shooting in Aperture, Shutter, or Program mode.

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    • Max Bridge

      That’s pretty much it Matthew.

      A lot of people seem to have misinterpreted this article as meaning people should only shoot in manual, full stop. That’s not what I was saying.

      I think that shooting in Manual mode for the first month or so is a far better way to learn. Once you’ve mastered it, which as you said is pretty simple, move on to whatever mode you like. It’s that initial learning period where shooting in Manual mode is so valuable for grasping the concept of exposure.

      In terms of cars, I live in the UK and we all drive manual / stick shift anyway. Having said that, I almost wish I had an automatic to teach my girlfriend in…fingers crossed she doesn’t read this :)

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  7. findley watt

    Thats awesome! Helpful article for us learnerd out there!

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  8. Daniel Thullen

    Your instruction about determining what you want to achieve in the photograph is exactly right! Very well said.

    Put me down for starting in Manual mode. I started almost immediately shooting sports events at night in poor lighting conditions. Using P would not have allowed me to compensate for the lighting nor freezing the action. Manual was the only was to go.

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  9. Lenzy Ruffin

    I couldn’t agree more. When I got started, I didn’t understand why someone would shoot in Manual mode. I didn’t understand the purpose. Once I learned the benefits of shooting in Manual mode, it became my default mode and I use the semi-auto modes when they’re more appropriate.

    I’d add that beginners should shoot lots of practice frames at home. Don’t worry about making art. Just shoot random scenes/objects around the house and learn how to set exposure manually. There’s nothing exciting about practice, but that’s how you get good. Trying to learn Manual mode while standing in front of something you really want to capture will lead to a lot of frustration over missed shots.

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  10. Steve VanSickle

    I took a nearly-opposite approach: I started in Program Mode and shot events in the city. As I started finding situations more challenging than Pm could handle, I started trying things like Shutter Priority or (my favorite for a lot of events) Manual with auto-ISO.

    Basically, my shooting started simple, but I put myself in difficult situations that forced me to learn and grow to get good images. Now, I’ve got a mental charts like minimum shutter speeds for concerts based on genre.

    But now, I’m helping teach a friend that’s just getting into photography, and he’s choosing to go the full-Manual route. So I get that different things work for different people. I went with the “shoot however you’re comfortable to build up the love for photography. Then start getting into the details.” but I understand and respect your approach, too.

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  11. Donna Macauley

    I completely agree. I started (ugh, I’m dating myself) with a completely manual film camera (back in the day)…even focus was manual. I think it was the best way to learn and I’m glad I had no other option so that I couldn’t just flip the dial and rely on the camera. Also, leaning in manual makes it easier to move to different technologies because you have the grasp of exposure and how the camera essentially works.

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  12. Alex Petrenko

    Shoot manual if your subject can wait. Otherwise – let camera help you to be faster.

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  13. Jeremy Stroud

    I started out in a semi-auto mode (Aperture Priority primarily). This allowed me to focus on one aspect of the photo at a time. I understood the exposure triangle and did swap modes when needed (primarily shutter speed) but it took me a bit to understand how much of a change I needed to get the shot that I really wanted. I’m still a bit of a newbie but no longer afraid to use Manual mode… it just doesn’t always work out yet. ;D

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    • Max Bridge

      You’ll get there in the end Jeremy. It’s not a big deal to have started off using other modes, I just feel that it would slow down development. Better to jump in at the deep end.

      When I started it took me a while to grasp the numbers and I think that’s what many people struggle with. I have a very good grasp on it all now but ironically I’ve also reaslied that, in some ways, it doesn’t matter. For example, if I look at my image either using the back of my camera or the histogram and think “that’s a stop under”, I know that three turns of a dial will add an extra stop. I just decide if it’s aperture, shutter speed, ISO or a combination that I’m going to adjust based on the need / want thing I mentioned in the article. It’s a slightly easier way of thinking rather than focusing on numbers.

      If you follow the above make sure your camera’s ISO is set to adjust in 1/3rd increments.

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    • William Irwin

      I actually started out in Program mode until I figured out what each part of the exposure triangle did. This was WAY back in the film days when looking at the back of the camera just showed you the back of your camera ;)

      Now with digital it is so much more simple to check exposure and make sure you got the right setting for that shot before firing away.

      I’m getting back into shooting film and it does feel a bit awkward since I find myself looking down at the back and nothing there LOL

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  14. Karen Borter

    I started out shooting in AV (Canon) mode only because manual terrified me … then my photographs started to be either over or under exposed and I decided that Manual was the best bet and forced myself to learn that way. Did I miss some shots? Yep, I sure did, but now it’s second nature to me and very rarely do I shoot in AV or TV (shutter). I agree, learn manual first!!

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  15. Paul Wynn

    I think many photographers forget the power of working in Manual. You know exactly what you are getting, and its straight forward to make changes with settings until you achieve the look you want. Okay shooting in aperture or shutter priority mode are extremely useful and have their place, but they can get you in trouble.

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    • Max Bridge

      I completely agree Paul. I just think amateurs find it daunting as all they see is numbers. What they should be focusing on is what they want to achieve with the numbers falling into place based on that.

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